The Product Owner role: Knowing and No-ing

Photo by Francesca Romana Correale

Photo by Francesca Romana Correale

The Product Owner has the most challenging role in Scrum: he needs to (1) know about the product, its market, its customers, its competitors, (2) have good communication skills, and (3) be empowered to say "no."  This role seems to be one of the hardest to fill appropriately and straddles the "IT vs. Business" divide that is all too present in many organizations.  It’s #3 that seems to be the trickiest because of the challenges of getting the right person to fill the role.

I’ve noticed a trend where organizations act as though anyone can come in, learn about the product, and therefore serve in the Product Owner role, so new people are hired or contracted to fill the position.  The truth is that products are suffering as a result of this thinking because there’s a lack of long-term vision or focus or accountability for results.  I believe that there are talented people who can come in and help define the product’s vision and do the necessary research to be successful to a point, but those people are probably consultants who can bring order to chaos and make sure to transition the Product Owner to the appropriate person before leaving.

The need for an empowered Product Owner typically means that the Product Owner must come from the "Business" side so he can make decisions and order the Product Backlog to maximize the value of the development team’s work.  According to Jeff Sutherland, co-founder of Scrum, “The Product Owner owns the business plan and is accountable for driving revenue (or whatever value your organization is producing).”  It’s incredibly difficult to find someone outside of an organization who can come in and do that, and IT people are generally not responsible for owning business plans or driving revenue. 

Customers and other stakeholders can (and will) ask for all sorts of features, but it is the Product Owner who decides what the product will ultimately include, upholding the Agile principle of simplicity (“the art of maximizing the amount 
of work not done”).  Strong scrum teams require strong Product Owners (not proxies), and the cost of having someone inadequately filling the role can add up quickly.  As Jeff Sutherland has found:

The majority of Scrum teams worldwide (and I survey multiple times every month in multiple countries) do not have good Product Backlog Items entering the sprint. In addition to cutting velocity at least in half (a minimum loss of about $75K per month per team), it leads to the customer not getting what they want.

Yikes!  Are your Product Owners knowledgeable, effective communicators, and empowered?  It might be time to see if there’s room for improvement.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.